WASHINGTON — When Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement on Friday to unblock Ukrainian grain exports, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played the role of benevolent statesman.
Sitting next to the UN secretary-general in an Ottoman palace in Istanbul, Mr Erdogan said the deal, which Turkey helped broker, would benefit “all of humanity”.
President Biden’s administration hailed the deal, which could ease a global food crisis intensified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and blockade of its ports. Officials expressed skepticism about Russia’s good faith, and Russian missiles hit the Ukrainian port city of Odessa less than a day after the pact was signed. However, a White House spokesman had praised Mr. Erdogan for his efforts.
But privately, Mr. Erdogan remained a source of substantial irritation to Biden administration officials.
Days before presiding over the grain deal, the Turkish autocrat renewed a warning that he could veto NATO plans to accept Sweden and Finland as members in the coming months, a an act that would deeply embarrass the alliance and the Biden administration as they work to counter Russia. . And Congress this month expressed doubts about Mr. Biden’s pledge at a NATO summit in Spain last month to sell dozens of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
On Tuesday, Erdogan traveled to Tehran for talks with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Images of two main US rivals with Mr Erdogan, the head of a NATO country, clashed with the Western narrative of a deeply isolated Iran and Russia, analysts said.
Then on Friday, a White House spokesman reiterated US concerns over Mr Erdogan’s threats to mount a new invasion of northern Syria targeting US-backed Kurdish fighters he considers like terrorists.
Taken together, Mr. Erdogan’s actions — and Mr. Biden’s limited ability to contain them — underscore the Turkish leader’s unique position as a military ally often at odds with the agenda of his Western allies. For US officials, it’s an often infuriating role.
“Erdogan is basically the Joe Manchin of NATO,” said Elizabeth Shackelford, a former foreign service officer, referring to the conservative Democratic senator from West Virginia who thwarted Mr Biden’s domestic agenda. “He’s part of our team, but he’s doing things that are clearly not good for our team. And I just don’t see that changing.
Better understand the Russian-Ukrainian war
But Biden administration officials say disbarring Mr. Erdogan entirely would be counterproductive. His nation’s position at the crossroads of East and West is strategically important and allows it to be an interlocutor with even more troublesome neighbors – as evidenced by the grain deal, which created a demilitarized corridor across the Black Sea for Ukraine’s agricultural exports.
A senior US official said much of Erdogan’s problematic behavior was a function of his political weakness in Turkey, where the rate of inflation increased to nearly 80% last month. Hoping to divert attention from his mismanaged economy, Mr Erdogan has turned to displays of nationalism and demagoguery over the threat from the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement in Turkey, and Kurdish groups in Syria.
Major NATO initiatives, such as the proposed expansion of the 30-member alliance to include Sweden and Finland, require unanimous consent. Mr Biden said in May that he hoped the two countries could “quickly” join in what would be a major strategic blow for Mr Putin.
But Mr Erdogan raised objections, complaining that the two would-be new members provided political and financial support to the PKK, which the United States has designated as a terrorist organization because of its history of violent attacks. US and NATO officials feared the planned expansion could collapse into a major propaganda victory for Mr Putin, who has long worked to divide the alliance.
NATO leaders breathed sighs of relief at their summit last month when Mr Erdogan reached an agreement with Swedish and Finnish leaders, who pledged to act against terrorist organizations and adhere to agreements extradition with Turkey, which wishes to prosecute members of the PKK living in these countries. .
Mr. Biden seemed particularly grateful for the breakthrough. “I especially want to thank you for what you have done to set up the situation regarding Finland and Sweden,” he told Mr Erdogan in the presence of journalists.
The two page agreement said in general language that Sweden and Finland would deal with Turkey’s “pending deportation or extradition requests of terrorism suspects expeditiously and thoroughly”. But Turkish officials have said they expect more than 70 people to be extradited. It was unclear whether Sweden and Finland would agree or how Mr Erdogan might react if they did not.
On Monday, Mr. Erdogan warned that he could still “freeze” the expansion of NATO if his demands were not met.
Mr Biden also told Mr Erdogan in Spain that he supported the sale of 40 US F-16 fighter jets that Turkey requested last fall, as well as technology upgrades for dozens of fighters that she already has. Turkey wants these planes in part because the Trump administration canceled plans to sell advanced F-35 fighter jets to the country in 2019 after Mr. Erdogan, in one of his most confusing recent actions, bought the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system from Russia in defiance of the United States. warnings.
Mr Biden denied offering the planes to buy Mr Erdogan’s support for NATO expansion. “And there was no quid pro quo with that; it was just that we had to sell,” he said. “But I need congressional approval to be able to do that, and I think we can get that.”
Congressional approval may not be a given. And it was unclear whether Mr Erdogan could block NATO’s proposed expansion until he reached an agreement on F-16 jets.
This month, the House approved an amendment to an annual military policy bill requiring Mr Biden to certify that any sale of fighter jets is in America’s vital national interest and that Turkey will not use the planes to violate the airspace of Greece, its Aegean Sea neighbor and NATO ally, with whom Ankara is engaged in a bitter territorial dispute.
Rep. Chris Pappas, a New Hampshire Democrat and sponsor of the amendment, also cited Mr. Erdogan’s purchase of the Russian missile system and his equivocal stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mr Erdogan called the invasion “unacceptable” but did not join the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies on Russia.
“That’s enough,” Mr. Pappas said. “Turkey played on both sides of the fence in Ukraine. They weren’t the reliable ally we should be able to count on.
“I think the Biden administration needs to take a tougher stance,” he added.
Once the White House formally asks Congress to approve the sale of the planes, Mr Biden will need the support of other influential members who have been highly critical of Mr Erdogan, including the Democratic President of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez of New Jersey.
Mr. Menendez has already wondered whether Turkey belongs to NATO. And at a hearing last month on the NATO enlargement plan, he said that “with gas time, Turkey’s eleventh-hour concerns that stand in the way of this process will not only serve Putin’s interests.”
Mr. Menendez too issued a statement last month with his Republican counterpart on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, sternly warning Mr. Erdogan against his threat to invade northern Syria. They were joined by the Democratic chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Gregory W. Meeks of New York, and his Republican counterpart, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas.
In the statement, the lawmakers said the potential invasion would have “disastrous results”, threatening local operations against Islamic State remnants and exacerbating the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
A Pentagon official recently added to the US warnings.
“We strongly oppose any Turkish operation in northern Syria and have made our objections to Turkey clear,” Dana Stroul, deputy undersecretary of defense at the Middle East Institute, said this month. “ISIS will benefit from this campaign.”
Some of Mr Erdogan’s harshest critics warn of an endless cycle, in which the Turkish leader obtains concessions from the United States and other NATO allies, such as new fighter jets and a tougher line against Kurdish militia fighters, only to intensify its demands in the future.
“This dance around the F-16 – it’s fighter jet diplomacy, and it’s a mask of what’s really at stake here,” said Mark Wallace, founder of the highly critical Turkish Democracy Project. towards Mr. Erdogan and his turn to authoritarianism. “A good ally – much less a good NATO ally – does not use blackmail to get what it wants at key moments in the alliance’s history.”
Julian E. Barnes contributed reporting from Aspen, Colorado.